Posted by: gdevi | January 6, 2013


To begin with an oft-used hedge-phrase, there are two types of people in the world: those who let cords, cables, wires and ropes lie tangled, sometimes knotted, and those who don’t. I belong to the second group. I discovered today that I spend a lot of time untangling knotted things at home and at work. In virtually every room in this house, there is either a gruesomely knotted earphone, a vacuum cleaner cord, extension cord, the iron or some sort of some rope-like thing lying tangled. It is incredible.  My daughter has a real talent for taking any earphone, however short or long, snag it, knot it, jam it,  tangle it until it looks like a gnarled piece of glutinous black plastic mass with two dead eye-like knobs peeking out. I have a real talent for untangling these kinds of knots. There is a certain satisfaction one gets from taking hold of this black plastic clump, loosening it lightly with your fingers, looking for where the knot is loose, and then slowly start to push the ear pieces backwards through its own path of entanglement, take it back farther and farther, all the way back to where it got snagged and gnarled in the first place, unlooping the now straightening cords back into their clean, unsnagged lines, until you get to that very first convoluted knot, see clearly how badly knotted and jammed it is, but which is also quite simple to unknot at this point, because every other crooked snag has been straightened out, and then carefully unknotting it so that the wires are free and separated once more, the way the manufacturer intended it to be.

I am infinitely patient as well which helps with bigger messes like 15o ft extension cords, or missed stitches in embroideries. Left to myself and left alone, I have discovered that I can untangle anything with minimal destruction; very rarely have I had to cut things off to undo a crooked snag.

I think the ability to untangle crooked knots and tangles is very similar to the ability to understand any kind of convoluted language. I have been helped by years of studying Sanskrit and reading seventeenth century Baroque prose with their scintillating clause structures. The pleasure you derive from reading and interpreting convoluted language is very similar to untangling messy and jammed knots. What I have discovered is that underneath it all, we live in a structured universe, and you can figure out pretty much anything if you pay close enough attention to the structure of a sentence, to that baseline subject-predicate divide, to that first jagged stitch, to that first obdurate knot. I say this to my students all the time.  It is very encouraging to them, as teachers.

Years and years ago, when I first read R. D. Laing’s Knots–I must have been fifteen or sixteen years old — I remember thinking how completely phony it sounded to me. There were parts of it that sounded interesting but most of it was just self-indulgence.  It is not that I don’t enjoy a good language game; I do. It is not that I don’t enjoy a good impasse or disjunction; I do. But Knots sounded so contrived in its attempt to pass itself off as some sort of inevitable statement about the human mind or human relationships or the human society. In some ways society is that way; some of the characters in Knots are pathologically neurotic.  Real mental illness is not an act or a choice. But affectation is an act, and most of the other stuff in Knots is an act.  It was like a bad Woody Allen movie. I thought it was so kooky to pass off an affectation of pathology as a socially and personally desirable liminal state to enter. I have to say though that Laing’s Conversations with Children was an original work. Besides it shows you how real children talk as opposed to adults who are just trying to make an odd and cutesy impression.

The hardest untying of knots I ever had to do was this winter when I had to untie the knots that held the enclosure net for my daughter’s trampoline. As usual, we had not taken it down before the cold and the rain set in, and I remember going out one weekend afternoon in November in bone-chilling rain–I was afraid the rain and the snow would destroy the netting– to untie the knots tying the enclosure netting to the tight and narrow joint space between the trampoline mat and the springs. I kneeled on the ground on the soggy woodchips and started to untie the laces that held the netting down. I have never counted them but we have a fairly big trampoline, and there must have been at least sixty or seventy of these laces to untie. I could not wear gloves because my work and gardening gloves are bulky, and you cannot untie anything with those except the rope that holds an elephant down, perhaps. And you need sensitive fingers to untie knots. So I untied them one after the other in the chilling rain with my bare hands, my fingers growing number by the minute, water dripping down my rain-slicker.  It was incredibly uncomfortable.  I kneeled down on the woodchips and peered under the trampoline to see where the knots were, and how best and easily to untie them.  Some of them were easy to pull out, but some of them had become jammed with dust and dirt over the summer months. But you feel around long enough, and suddenly you feel a loose tie and there, you pull it free.  It gave me a profound sense of satisfaction to take that netting down, fold it, clean it and put it away in the garage. You know, we put that enclosure there so the kids won’t fall through when they played. It was so important to take it down now, so the snow won’t destroy it.


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